Heritage on a Plate

From Penang to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) Part 1: Hidden Saigon

Food Tour, Heritage and Culture, TravelDanny MahesComment

Hey, guys! I wanted to share with you some experiences on my recent trip to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. It was a short trip, but a really eye-opening one!

During my brief stay, I did a culture tour, visited the fine arts museum, ate lots of delicious and diverse food and learned an interesting lesson about food and travel. Not bad for just a few days!

I want to share all of that with you in a few short posts. In Part 1, I want to tell you about Hidden Saigon.

Discovering Hidden Saigon

Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) is the most populated city in Vietnam and has a poignant and complicated story to tell. Locals often still refer to it as Saigon - what it was called before the reunification of North and South Vietnam - though it’s been renamed after the founder of the revolutionary movement.

So what’s the best way to get to know a city like this? For me, finding the right people who could introduce me to this place in a nuanced and honest way was very important. Luckily, I’d heard really great things about Hidden Saigon from guests who’d taken our food tour in Penang. A few emails later, I was booked on a cultural exploration of modern Saigon, set for my first morning in the city.

Margarita Coffee! I didn’t get a picture of it but they also had Pho Coffee, which sounded like uhhh when I heard about it but it was so good I’m going back for it!

Margarita Coffee! I didn’t get a picture of it but they also had Pho Coffee, which sounded like uhhh when I heard about it but it was so good I’m going back for it!

Luckily, it started with coffee! In the past few years, HCMC has enjoyed immense economic growth and many young Vietnamese are embracing an expansion of Vietnam’s traditional coffee culture. Local cafes are popping up with a lot of interesting ideas, while growing demand and disposable income have led to the flourishing of experimentation.

The young baristas filled us in on the history of modern coffee cultivation and consumption in Vietnam, and even made some delicious cuppas for us. We tried the still hugely popular traditional Vietnamese coffee, as well as the signature Margarita Coffee and Pho Coffee from La Viet. Our guide shared her family’s history and experience of the war, as well as her passion for HCMC. At the end of it, I was buzzing from the three cups of coffee I’d had and ready for whatever came next!

The morning visit to the market was a bleary-eyed but fun experience

The morning visit to the market was a bleary-eyed but fun experience

Now that we’d had our coffee fix, it was time to explore a bit and get some food! We had a little walk around one of the many morning markets scattered about District 1. Bến Thành Market is the popular tourist market in District 1 but we opted for a much smaller one that would give us a chance to look at local produce and breakfast meals.

We had súp cua, and I saw Gấc for the first time. Gotta be honest, I had no idea what it was and luckily our guide was there to explain its significance. Could I have googled it myself? Yes. Would it have been as fun as listening to stories over a hot bowl of súp? Depending on your answer, you may or may not be a terminator sent from the future.

This is called sup and oh boy it was so good. Seafood broth thickened with tapioca starch, with crab meat, calamari and quail’s egg, topped with some punchy green-ness from the coriander. So, so good that I still dream of it.

This is called sup and oh boy it was so good. Seafood broth thickened with tapioca starch, with crab meat, calamari and quail’s egg, topped with some punchy green-ness from the coriander. So, so good that I still dream of it.

This is gac, the big, round, orange fruit that’s a type of melon. It’s often used in local cooking and herbal medicine. Didn’t get to try some, unfortunately. Next trip, then!

This is gac, the big, round, orange fruit that’s a type of melon. It’s often used in local cooking and herbal medicine. Didn’t get to try some, unfortunately. Next trip, then!

One of my favourite stops on the tour was to the studios of Headless, where we got to speak to founder Minh. Headless is anime inspired avant-garde streetwear brand, based in HCMC. If you’ve been on our food tour in Penang, you’ll know that despite my ravishing good looks and impeccable style, I’m a bit late in the game for anime-inspired streetwear. But it was really, really great to meet a fellow creative who’s had an interesting journey to become what he is now. And Minh also gave us so much great insight into what it’s like to be young in Ho Chi Minh City. Well, young-ish.

For our finale meal on the tour, we visited a popular stop for the working crowd. We had some damned amazing food I’d never have been able to try on my own and we even got a chance to watch it being made. It was a very satisfying way to end what was a fun, informative and eye-opening introduction to a part of HCMC few tourists ever see.

Banh Beo are clay plates of steamed rice and tapioca starch, topped with dried shrimp, shallots and pork crackling. It’s topped with a spicy vinegar sauce I can’t remember the name of (help, someone?) It was so good I almost ate this entire serving myself.

Banh Beo are clay plates of steamed rice and tapioca starch, topped with dried shrimp, shallots and pork crackling. It’s topped with a spicy vinegar sauce I can’t remember the name of (help, someone?) It was so good I almost ate this entire serving myself.

Banh Ram It are similar to Banh Beo, with the clay plates replaced by fried rice and tapioca starch. It adds a nice crispy texture to the snack and I could not get enough.

Banh Ram It are similar to Banh Beo, with the clay plates replaced by fried rice and tapioca starch. It adds a nice crispy texture to the snack and I could not get enough.

Bun Bo Hue is rice noodles in beef broth, which was lip smacking-ly good. This style of Bun Bo is from the old imperial city of Hue, which I very much hope to visit soon.

Bun Bo Hue is rice noodles in beef broth, which was lip smacking-ly good. This style of Bun Bo is from the old imperial city of Hue, which I very much hope to visit soon.

That’s about it for Part 1, folks! As you’ve probably figured by now, this isn’t going to be a series that tries to play up our “local knowledge“ credentials by picking only the most rustic photos of squatting on stools by some obscure street. My goal when visiting HCMC was to experience a wide a breadth of it as possible in my limited time there, and I consciously chose to explore different perspectives of the city - from the family marts to the eateries to the rooftop restaurants.

The reason for this, is that what’s “local“ can be very different depending on who you ask. I want to avoid “othering“ the people I visit, and I don’t want to limit myself to experiences that echo a stale expectation of what Vietnam should look like, or how it should present itself to the people who visit. HCMC is a place of tremendous change and challenge, tremendous optimism, and delicious food. I’ll be sharing more with you in Part 2!